Another Trump Surprise: Women’s Rights (Part 3)

Statue of Liberty (Photo by Stuart Dean)

Before delving further into ancient history, specifically the implications of the possibility that Sappho was a refugee (see the end of Part 2), I want to focus on the relevance of that history to modern US history. Such relevance is vital to appreciate the issues that are ultimately at stake in Trump’s having invoked the legacy of the Trojan War (see Part 1). Two interrelated developments make that especially difficult to explain.

First, the study of Greek and Latin that is necessary to understand the cultures to which they relate (“Classical Culture”) has essentially disappeared from the US educational curriculum. This is an especially disturbing development because of the fact that the US was founded as an entirely new country by men who were fluent in Latin and believed that they were emulating Classical Culture. Without at least some familiarity with Classical Culture it is impossible to decide whether they were right or wrong in doing so and to identify and correct such mistakes as they may have made.

Second, scholarship on Classical Culture has evolved substantially over the past two centuries, but much of it, not surprisingly given the decline in studying it in the US, has been done by non-US scholars whose work is largely unknown even among US academics. To some extent this scholarship validates the reliance placed upon Greek and Roman political and legal precedents evident in the Constitution as originally drafted. To that extent it would not seem to matter in practical terms that such scholarship is not followed in the US.

Yet, since WW II it has become apparent that Classical Culture took a disastrous turn with Plato and Aristotle and that following them and the precedents for which they are responsible is doomed to failure. One aspect of the turn for which they are responsible that has been particularly disastrous is their marginalization and denigration of women. This constituted an inexplicable betrayal of earlier Greeks, who in a manner and to a degree that has no precedent or parallel until the late 20th century, recognized not only (a) the validity of the principle of sexual egalitarianism, but also (b) the unique importance of women relative to men.

Though early Greek women did not participate in government, because of the far reaching implications of such authority as they did have with respect to what today would be characterized as family law and medicine as well as spiritual beliefs and practices, it is fair to characterize them as having “women’s rights.” Indeed, given their control over the selection of marriage partners and the timing and rate of birth, formal political control would have been relatively unimportant to them, especially in the context of the far more limited role of government in daily lives of that time. While it therefore would be anachronistic to criticize early Greek culture for failing to include women in government, it would be just as anachronistic not to see in the early Greek recognition of sexual egalitarianism the basis for insisting upon such inclusion as the role of government increased. It should be emphasized, however, that simply allowing women to vote or to hold one office or another falls far short of recognizing women’s rights as they were originally conceived of by the early Greeks. While it should go without saying that women’s rights should not be identified with only one political ideology, based on the reaction to the election of Trump that is apparently something that cannot be said often enough for the foreseeable future.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement As A Legacy Of A Blunder Of Truly Historic Proportions

It is clear from the warning Abigail Adams sent her husband about the dangers of not including women in government that at least some of the ‘Founding Fathers’ were aware that as originally drafted the US Constitution was flawed, potentially fatally, for not heeding her warning. At that time, however, women were excluded from the study of Classical Culture. Therefore, they had no basis for arguing that the early period of Greek culture that was so vital to the development of what was best about Classical Culture was closely related to the recognition of women’s rights.

A notable exception was the German, Caroline Schelling (‘Caroline’). Though she had no formal training in Greek or Latin, she was the brilliant daughter of one of the greatest Biblical scholars of the 1700s and grew up in a prestigious German university town (Göttingen) that was and is famous throughout the world. Caroline’s father, for example, was visited by many prominent people, including Benjamin Franklin. Although Caroline was only a child when Franklin visited her father, it is clear that as she grew up she learned much about Classical Culture indirectly from what others, including her father, told her about it. Proof of that is to be found in a work she helped write on early Greek female spirituality published in 1795 (see my post: The German Diotima). Around the time of the publication of that work she contemplated moving to the US, but for unknown reasons chose not to do so.

Given her many connections through her father and others she knew in her own circle of friends she would surely have made an impact on US culture, perhaps by agitating for the recognition of the right of women to vote. As bad a blunder as the US Constitution as originally drafted represented in not heeding Abigail Adams’s warning, the blunder was compounded significantly by the unwillingness of the US Supreme Court to read into the 14th Amendment the right of women to vote. Many women at the time felt they had earned that right through their service during the Civil War. The post-Civil War gift of the Statue of the Hellenistic goddess Liberty to the US testifies, among other things, to the fact that at least a few people in France would have seen it that way. Instead, that right had to wait fully to be recognized until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. One tragic consequence of the delay in recognizing that right was that the US entered WW I, a war that if you annualize the US casualties for the relatively brief period US troops were involved in combat as a basis of comparison to other wars (see the list here), was arguably the deadliest in US history. In addition to the tragic loss of life, WW I was in effect the beginning of another tragedy: Globalism.

Globalism & Women’s Rights

To be sure, some might object to the implication that with the right to vote women would have exercised sufficient political power to prevent the US from entering WW I. Nevertheless, it is clear going all the way back to S. 16, the poem Sappho composed about Helen of Troy (see Part 2), that women have, at a minimum, been far less enthusiastic about war than men. Abigail Adams, for example, was not a pacifist for she manifestly supported the American Revolutionary War, but she regretted the use of violence. Sappho herself was also surely not a pacifist — she uses the term ‘comrade in arms’ (surprisingly very rare in ancient Greek) in a very positive sense in one of her poems. Yet, implicit in her praise of Helen and what survives of her wedding songs, as well as her concern with her brother’s commercial sea travel, that she was if not a nationalist at least certainly not a Globalist.

Such a conclusion is further buttressed by a consideration of the possibility that she left her native Lesbos as a refugee, making the then quite hazardous journey by sea to Sicily (indeed, as is all too evident from current news regarding refugee boats in the Mediterranean it can still be quite hazardous). That could not have been a happy trip. The Sehnsucht that is apparent in some fragments of her poetry perhaps betrays her own wistful longing to be back in her homeland.

What deserves special attention about her flight as a refugee is how it can be related to the history of women’s rights. Though far too little of Sappho’s poetry survives to be certain of what she thought about or did that has political or legal implications, there is considerable evidence from Sicily and southern Italy in the century after she was alive that makes it likely she went there because it was there that women enjoyed far greater respect than anywhere else in the world at that time. I will elaborate upon this more in future posts, but suffice it for now to say she was not exporting misogyny and the violence against women that it foments, she was fleeing from it.